Ken Smith, Author, A Civil War Without Guns

From the 1970s on, Tory politicians meticulously and ruthlessly prepared an offensive to try to vanquish the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and ultimately trade unionism.

That showdown came in 1984 when the Tory government hoped for a short, sharp victory over the NUM. In response, the miners had no choice but to fight. At stake were not just jobs, but the future of their industry and their communities.

The Tories did not get the swift, decisive defeat they hoped for and such was the resistance and bitterness created by them during the strike that they have been haunted by it ever since.

The 30th anniversary has seen yet another avalanche of propaganda aimed at justifying the view that the strike was doomed to defeat and that the actions of just one man – Arthur Scargill – were responsible for that defeat and the ultimate demise of the once proud NUM and coal industry in Britain.

To reinforce that establishment view, a rogues’ gallery of right-wing trade unionists and Labour politicians have used the 30th anniversary to say that the ‘crushing’ of the miners and their communities was because a confrontation-seeking Arthur Scargill decided to take on an uncompromising Margaret Thatcher.

Thirty years on, the strike is rightly regarded as the biggest, most significant, industrial battle of the end decades of the 20th century in Britain.

Despite all the right-wing claptrap, the truth that cannot be silenced is that the miners and their supporters conducted a magnificent defensive struggle that nearly turned into victory.

A dying industry?

Miners and their families during the 1984-5 strike, photo D Pearson

Miners and their families during the 1984-5 strike, photo D Pearson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

One of the arguments put forward by the right wing in the labour movement to justify their backsliding during the strike is that coal was a dying industry. They assert that the strike just accelerated the demise of the industry.

In 1983 about 100 million tonnes of coal were produced by the British coal industry. Now in 2014 it produces just over 15 million tonnes.

Yet, the UK consumed 64.1 million tonnes of coal in 2012, including 54.9 million tonnes in power stations, and coal imports to the UK were 44.8 million tonnes.

This represented a large increase (+37.7%) on the previous year’s amount, mainly because of a dramatic increase in electricity generated from coal.

Coal-fired power stations still provide 41% of the UK’s electricity (gas 26%, nuclear 20%, others such as renewables 13%).

Even following the strike, coal production remained at around 50 million tons until 1995. If this amount was still being produced in Britain, it would more than cover the amount used by the electricity industry currently.

The Tories lied through their teeth about pit closures and the economics of the industry in the run-up to the strike.

Yet, it was never about the economics of the industry. As Thatcher blurted out in her memoirs it was a political battle for the Tories.

In 1948, more than 600,000 worked in the industry, by 1984 this was just 182,000.

On average, between eight to ten pits closed every year in this period and more pits closed under Labour governments than Tory.

Mines were made to look increasingly uneconomic and liable to closure during this period by a process of starving the industry of funding and investment.

There was a continual rigging of the National Coal Board (NCB) accounts – to portray the industry as a loss-making operation – and an increasing use of the discovery of geological problems at pits by a new more hardline NCB management, headed by Ian MacGregor since 1983.

The NCB was charged more than £100 million in interest to store the millions of tonnes of coal that was stockpiled.

Additionally, British coal had the lowest level of state subsidy in Western Europe. West Germany received £8.60 subsidy per tonne, France and Belgium received more than £17 subsidy per tonne, whereas the UK industry received only £3.20 subsidy per tonne.

Plan for coal

Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist, argued for the same level of subsidy to apply to the British coal industry.

For a long time before the strike, and during it, Militant argued that while it was necessary to campaign against pit closures there also needed to be a socialist plan of production for the industry and a socialist, integrated energy policy.

These demands first featured in a Militant NUM programme for action produced as a pamphlet in late 1977.

Even then it was clear that at some stage there would be a massive conflict over the future of the coal industry.

The Plan for Coal drawn up by the NCB in 1973 had envisaged a much larger ‘market’ for coal than actually transpired in the early 1980s. In response to the threatened contraction of the industry, we argued for:

  • No redundancies; fight all closures except on grounds of proven exhaustion or safety as determined by the union
  • For workers’ control and management of the coal industry
  • For the setting up of a national fuel corporation
  • For a socialist national fuel policy

During the strike, the late Andrew Glyn, an Oxford University economist, produced a pamphlet that showed that when many of the NCB’s false overheads were stripped away, the coal industry was not “insolvent” as the Tories claimed.

It proved that “the production of coal in 1983-84 more or less covered its underlying costs of production and financed the industry’s investment.

He also showed that when you added the devastating economic costs of shutting down pits then “there is not one single pit whose closure would benefit government revenue”.

He concluded, “under present circumstances there is no economic case whatsoever for pit closure before exhaustion of mineable reserves.”

Ridley Report

Miners had known for some time that a titanic struggle on the future of their industry was looming. From Thatcher’s election in 1979 to the start of the miners’ strike, 1,600 jobs were lost every week in Britain with hardly a squeak of resistance from some union leaders.

Even in the coal industry, where miners had shown themselves prepared to fight, more than 100 jobs were lost every week as unemployment soared to more than three million.

Still smarting from their defeat at the hands of the miners in the 1972 and 1974 strikes, the Tories were preparing to smash the miners at an opportune time.

From the Tory general election victory of 1979 onwards, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been gauging the temper of the British working class and, in particular, the willingness of the trade union and Labour leaders to struggle against the attacks she was embarking upon.

The key elements in the Tories’ preparations for the events of 1984-85 were the implementation of the Ridley Report proposals, which was ‘leaked’ in the Economist in 1978.

Nicholas Ridley, who was later to become a Tory cabinet minister and Lord, wrote this infamous report. It proposed the following:

A building up of coal stocks to see power supply last throughout a lengthy miners’ strike.

The increasing use of private, non-union haulage companies to carry coal.

Power stations to be switched to dual coal and oil burning.

A massive tooling up and increase of police powers to be combined with more draconian civil (anti-union) and criminal laws during the strike.

The Tories carried out all this and more with a vengeance. From 1980 to 1983 coal stocks were built up from 37.7 million tonnes to 58 million tonnes.

In 1981 Sir Donald Maitland, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy, asked the Central Electricity Generation Board to prepare a contingency plan to cope with a miners’ strike. It was ready within a few months.

Tory climb-downs

A Northumberland miners' rally, photo D Pearson

A Northumberland miners’ rally, photo D Pearson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

This followed on from the Thatcher government’s humiliating climb-down at the hands of the miners in 1981, when the South Wales miners’ bold and determined action against pit closures began to spread throughout the British coalfields.

The Iron Lady was forced to retreat without using any of her newly established legal powers, like the Employment Act.

This victory, after the setback of the defeated national steel strike in 1980, gave confidence to other groups of workers taking industrial action.

However, it was clear, as Militant warned at the time, that this was a temporary, tactical retreat by Thatcher and the ruling class. They would come back at a later stage, if they were allowed to, with further attacks.

This wasn’t just a whim of Margaret Thatcher’s. It was a conscious strategy for the ruling class in Britain.

Appearing on a recent BBC Wales documentary, Michael Heseltine, a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet in 1984-85 spelt it out very clearly.

Asked about whether the Tories had instigated the miners’ strike to tackle the alleged £1 billion annual subsidy to the mining industry in Britain, his reply showed the cold calculation of the British ruling class at its most blunt.

He said: “This was not about the subsidy, and it was not about revenge as such… We could not allow a group of industrial workers to hold us to ransom.

“It was something we or any other government had to deal with… We had to fight at the time of our choosing, and at a time when there was no way Scargill would have voluntarily chosen to fight.”

Indeed, the strike started not because Arthur Scargill called it. Nor did the national or area leaderships of the National Union of Mineworkers start the strike.

They were aware that with the massive stockpiles of coal, March 1984 was not the best time to take action, because it would mean a longer more difficult dispute with no guarantees of success.

Indeed, at the start of the strike, most experienced NUM members thought it could last for about three months.

Former Tory cabinet minister Norman Tebbit revealed in 1992, how worried the Tories were following threats of miners’ strike action in 1982 and 1983.

He concluded that the 1984 strike had been a “close-run thing” and 18 months earlier the miners would have almost certainly triumphed.

Notwithstanding the courage and determination shown during the strike and after by the NUM national leaders, such as their president Arthur Scargill and general secretary Peter Heathfield, the beginning of the strike saw them caught off guard.

Many NUM leaders had the perspective of the overtime ban, which had been solidly endorsed in a national ballot, continuing until the autumn of 1984 and then taking strike action.

NUM general secretary Peter Heathfield had only a few weeks before the strike told a meeting in Derbyshire that he doubted whether the younger miners would go on strike because they had big mortgages and took foreign holidays.

Although ballots for industrial action against pit closures and on pay had been defeated, there had been increasing votes for action on pay in all areas in 1983, showing a growing mood to fight.

Taking all these factors into consideration the Tories probably thought that the time was right for a pre-emptive move in March 1984.

Miners inspirational

That titanic struggle is rich with lessons about the strategy and tactics trade unionists need to learn from and apply today.

The tens of thousands of ordinary miners who stuck out for the whole 12 months can feel pride and will be an inspiration to workers for generations to come.

It was not through lack of determination or fighting spirit on the part of these miners and their families and supporters that their struggle was defeated.

Their 12-month battle against difficult odds nearly won – as we shall chronicle in the Socialist over the 12 months of the 30th anniversary.

Ultimately, their struggle was betrayed by the right-wing leaders of the TUC and Labour leader Neil Kinnock, though there are many lessons that should be discussed and learned from regarding the strategy of the NUM leaders, including Arthur Scargill.

Moreover, although the miners were forced back to work in March 1985 without an agreement, the inspiration of their struggle to defend their industry and communities continued, and remained a feature of the struggles to come.

One such struggle led to the removal of the hated Thatcher through the successful anti-poll tax campaign led by Militant.

The miners’ example in 1984 also led to a huge public outcry in 1992 against the re-elected Tory government’s proposals for a massive further cut in deep-mined coal and the loss of more than 30,000 mining jobs.

Despite Peter Heathfield’s concerns, it was the young miners at Cortonwood Colliery in south Yorkshire who started the strike.

On 5 March 1984 they walked out following the announcement of the pit’s closure without any reference by the NCB to the nationally agreed pit closure review procedure.

This was a clear warning that the Tories’ closure programme was about to be rapidly accelerated.

Young miners – many of them already at their third or fourth pit before the age of 35 – knew this would mean compulsory redundancies and the destruction of their communities.

It was the determined resistance of these younger miners that helped developed the strike’s momentum, even following a hesitant start in some areas.

This time there was no escape route for that generation: moving on to another pit when yours closed was becoming more difficult, as was the possibility of finding jobs outside the mining industry.

Yet, as the young miners at Cortonwood started the action on that March day, some felt this was going to be a long, bitter struggle, but few knew the scale of the battles that were to come.

A civil war without guns

by Ken Smith

£8 (postage included)

The Socialist Party’s history of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, A Civil War Without Guns, by Ken Smith, has been reprinted with a new introduction for the 30th anniversary of this colossal struggle.

Available from Socialist Books
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